Thursday, June 25, 2009

Criticising Critics

by Barbara D'Amato

The passing of Ed Gilbreth last week got me to thinking about critics and what makes a good one. He and Anthony Boucher, who reviewed for the New York Times for many years and for whom the Bouchercon is named, were what fine critics should be—well informed, open-minded, and fair.

Some people use the terms reviewer and critic differently, claiming that a reviewer simply describes the book and gives the publisher, price and such info. Critics, they say, go on and give criticism. I’ll use both terms here, since I think the distinction is unnecessary.

What makes a good critic?

It’s okay to include negative criticisms. Often they help the writer. Even if I disagree with a negative remark, it tells me something I need to know.

It’s not okay to have a hidden agenda. Of course a reviewer has his or her own tastes. It’s not okay to keep them hidden and sabotage books. I never object when a reviewer says something like “I usually don’t enjoy large amounts of gore and violence, but SPLATTERFIEND is fast-paced, well-written, and has believable characters.”

It’s not okay to make fun of the book or the author. A friend of mine who had reviewed for years and then had several novels published told me he winced thinking of the nasty/funny remarks he made about books just because he thought the phrasing was amusing. Writers know this can happen. Mark Zubro wrote a book about the murder of a Chicago alderman, which he wanted to title WHO CARES? Amusing, yes, but he knew it would tempt reviewers to say, “I didn’t.”

It’s not okay to review a book without reading it. This occurs more than anyone would wish. I have a friend whose flap copy contained an error. One reviewer repeated elements of it over and over in his review, making it pitifully clear he hadn’t ready the book.

And there was the famous case of the reviewer who accused an author of bigotry because the reviewer had not read far enough into the book to realize the nasty stuff was the viewpoint of a character the author was presenting as a bad guy. Unlikely, you say? The review wrote for a major publication and the whole thing caused a major stink. As it should have.

It’s okay not to have the depth of knowledge that Gilbreth and Boucher had. Few people have read that many books or have that wonderful, detailed recall. But I get the feeling that some critics read only the books they are forced to and jump to the handiest reference. For instance, if a book has a native American character, for a real reader, there may be a comparison more apt that Tony Hillerman.

It’s not okay to hold the flap copy, the cover art, or other publisher’s decisions about which the author has no control against the author. I read a review recently that took an author to task for the quality of the PAPER the book was printed on. Really.

It’s not okay to give away the ending.


Dana King said...

My idea of a book reviewer leans more in the direction of what you may think of as a critic. Too many reviews today are just plot summaries, stopping (one hopes) just in time to keep from spoiling the ending. Interesting plot developments may be spoiled at will, if the reviewer thinks that will interest the reader. A brief paragraph at the end may tell if the reviewer thinks the book is any good. These are not book reviews; these are book reports.

When i read reviews, I want to be told more about the caliber and style of writing. I'll figure the plot out as I read the book. Tell me the hook, sure. Then leave me alone to enjoy the trip.

Libby Hellmann said...

I've written one review -- and it was the most difficult thing I've ever done. I won't do it again. I felt tremendous responsibility -- and pressure. How could I pass judgement on someone else's vision? Especially knowing how much blood, sweat, and tears went into the crafting of it. So, I tip my hat to those who are able to review.

Dana King said...

I've become a much more thoughtful reviewer as I work more on my writing. I've thought about quitting a few times, for the reasons you cited. I kept at it when someone suggested I apply the $25 rule in reviews: would I recommend someone spend $25 for this book? Why or why not?

This is how I write them all now. I try to be gentle, but if I didn't get the author's vision--and I know I don't always--it could also be he wasn't as clear about it as he could be, and that might enter into whether the book is worth $25.

Will I continue to review if I ever get a novel published, and am therefore subject to review myself? I have no idea.

Barbara D'Amato said...

I wrote three or four reviews for the Sun-Times after I had published a few novels, and it was painful. Never again. I have great admiration for those who do it well.

JD Rhoades said...

And there was the famous case of the reviewer who accused an author of bigotry because the reviewer had not read far enough into the book to realize the nasty stuff was the viewpoint of a character the author was presenting as a bad guy.

I had this happen to me with an online reviewer who liked BREAKING COVER, but chided me for "gratuitous homophobia". Without giving too much away, the scene I'm pretty sure he was referring to was one in which the main character uses an antagonist's own homophobia to make him lose his cool and make a serious mistake. Some people just don't get it.

Sara Paretsky said...

Good, thoughtful post, Barb.
And another beautiful reader/reviewer who sadly also just died is John Callaway.

David J. Montgomery said...

I don't care for most of the reviews I see.... But other critics probably say the same thing about mine. :)